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The practices and even placement of colleges on university land has polarised wider media for many decades. Most people will already have a fairly fixed view on the colleges at the University of Sydney. While it is not my place to even attempt to change that, I believe that there is a story that is often left out of typical media discourse which I want to share.
I was lucky enough to be offered a place at St Andrews College with a generous music scholarship. Yet, leading up to my arrival, I was remarkably nervous. I had extensively read literature such as the Broderick Report and the Red Zone Report. As a person of colour who does not drink alcohol and certainly doesn’t conform to the “alpha-male” stereotype in any way, I had a strong contingency plan in place. The moment anything becomes too much, leave and never go back. College can be many things for many people but for me, it has been a place of welcome and a source of community I had never envisaged becoming a part of.
The notion of community is often overlooked when considering college life. A cursory glance at unofficial pages on social media such as “USYD Rants” on Facebook suggests that there are many people who feel isolated, distant or indeed alienated during their time at University. I have found that a collegiate setting generally unifies people by providing exactly that, a strong sense of community. RMIT University recently conducted a study called “The Belonging Project” which discussed ideas of belonging and inclusivity regardless of racial background, gender or sexuality among other things. Noting that a need to belong is an “innate evolutionary drive,” the “perceived social support on campus, a feeling… of connectedness and the experience of feeling cared about” were key elements to creating such a sense of belonging. This is one of the most attractive things about college that I never expected. The social support that any one student can receive from their cohort is unparalleled and is truly something to cherish.
When I first came to college, I was a little worried about the fact that I could not drink alcohol. When considering the strong peer pressure that often accompanies the consumption of alcohol, I considered these worries to be well-founded. Thankfully, none of this was the case. My mentor during “Welcome Week” (also a non-drinker) assured me from day one that no-one would judge me and that is something that I very much appreciate.
This brings me on to a wider point about equality. In Australian society at the moment, we are seeing a great deal of division, often exacerbated by the media. The vitriolic hate that often accompanies this division can, in return, trigger a vicious cycle where minorities are “othered” and feel alienated from wider society. Even at university, a brief analysis of social media discourse reveals an “us vs them” dichotomy that is placed upon various social and cultural groups at the university. This is something that both worries and simultaneously frustrates me.
This is probably the most enlightening and indeed inspiring thing about collegiate life, especially at Drew’s. There is great diversity in the backgrounds of my cohort and my friends in a multitude of different ways. While this may be something to distinguish us, it certainly does not divide us and that is very powerful. As many people of colour will say, it is a rare privilege to not feel race, be it through overt discrimination, subtle comments or even a suspicious glance that creates tension. In my opinion, to not feel or perceive difference is a true hallmark of substantive equality. Although I have no intention to speak for or conglomerate the lived experiences of others, I can safely say that, personally, I have rarely experienced an environment as divorced from prejudice or division as Drew’s. From the interview to day one of Welcome Week, it was made abundantly clear that this was a place of equality and inclusivity. I know the College prides itself on a 50/50 gender split and its rural intake and I think the framework they have put in place has truly allowed residents to foster a system of equality to the point where it is only of vague consciousness. While it is a given that there will be occasion prejudice encountered in any walk of life, when such prejudice is isolated and frowned upon in a community, it is one of the most effective ways of wiping it out. Many communities would be well-placed to take a leaf out of the Drew’s book when it comes to promoting inclusivity.
So, looking back on that first day, do I think I made the right decision? To me, it’s a simple answer. College life has not been what I have imagined, that’s for sure. But, notwithstanding the opportunities that it provides, it has given me the opportunity to be a part of a strongly bonded community with genuinely substantive equality. Through such equality, I have also had the chance to experience completely different perspectives, on subject matter I would have never even considered before coming to college. That kind of growth and that kind of a community, you cannot put a price on.